A recipe for fixing the restaurant industry

Mix some courtesy with a large helping of policy change

WE’RE HEARING cheers of people saying the world is finally back to normal, that we can go back to living our lives the way we did before the pandemic. I wish that were true.

Well, part of me does. The other part of me realizes we need to acknowledge that the pandemic was eye-opening, particularly for the restaurant industry. There are major changes that need to happen that are less talked about publicly. These matters are historically talked about behind closed doors. And that needs to change immediately.

The pandemic has tested experienced and proven restaurateurs. Some didn’t survive. Some chose to quit because they didn’t have the willpower left. Now is the time to spread awareness of aspects of the restaurant industry that are rarely considered by government, some guests, and, unfortunately, some old-minded restaurant operators. There is a massive labor shortage across the restaurant business. The staffing issue is much greater than enhanced unemployment – it’s about burnout, it’s about hostile work environments, it’s about wage discrepancies, and, most importantly, it’s about a lifestyle change.

What returned with the demand of dining out is the way servers are mistreated.

Guests are starting to become less forgiving, less kind to their wait staff. It’s not every guest but it’s enough to bring us down. It’s enough to have someone quit this industry for good.

As employers, we need to always treat not just our guests with respect, but also our employees. As guests, we need to be patient, we need to be kind, and most importantly, we need to be forgiving. Restaurant workers are hustling to make your weekend out go smooth. We don’t want to make mistakes but they will happen. It is no reason to be disrespectful to someone who is working weekends so others can enjoy theirs.

Why are all our kitchens understaffed? Is it because cooks called it quits and found different careers? Is it because giving up your weekends to work in a hot kitchen is just not worth missing watching your kids grow up? Is it because of the wage discrepancy between the front-of-house and back-of-house staff?

The reality is that most of your kitchen is made up of immigrants. Massachusetts has a law that makes it illegal to tip out the kitchen staff. This law makes Massachusetts one of two states in the entire country that does not allow the employer to decide whether or not the kitchen staff can be included in tip outs. The truth is that the kitchen staff make significantly less than our entry level front-of-house employees even though their base hourly wages are higher. Why does this discrepancy exist? Is it because of the demographic make-up of kitchen employees? Has the law not changed due to subtle racism?

I think we all agree that the restaurant experience cannot go away. The dining-out culture is a societal need. So what can we do?

We need the government to incentivize and revitalize the kitchen job market. The hard reality is that most people don’t want these jobs. Most of the workforce, again, is made up of immigrants who work 100-hour weeks between two jobs to barely scrape by.

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Why can’t the state immediately address the wage discrepancy that would not be tolerated in any other industry? Why can’t the government launch a program that would promise immigrants permanent residence or citizenship after some years of work service? Why can’t we integrate subsidized English classes and other education courses to enhance their lives? If the pandemic has proven one thing, it is that the state and federal government will put money behind saving the economy and saving societal needs. This is no different. Not to mention, it is the right and humane thing to do.

We need to fix these issues now and stop living in this fallacy of normal. Not everything pre-pandemic is worth returning to. The pandemic presented us a unique opportunity to fix the wrongs of an old industry. People now are willing to accept change more than ever and it falls on all of us to improve the liveliness of hard restaurant workers. That is how we preserve that neighborhood restaurant experience we all so cherish. Restaurants are where we all go to celebrate with family, catchup with friends, even first dates. It’s where we go to share laughs, and sometimes tears to mourn a loved one. We cannot afford to lose restaurants and, just as importantly, we cannot afford to lose the humans working in the restaurant business.

Arpit Patel is the owner of Baramor, an American pub in Newton.